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Go On

My first two personal journals, which covered the dreaded year of 1985.

My first two personal journals, which covered the dreaded year of 1985.

On December 31, 1985, I gathered with one of my best friends, his then-girlfriend and her older sister at the girls’ house to ring in the New Year.  In my 22 years of life at the time, I had never been so glad to see a single year fade away as 1985.  Just about everything had gone wrong for me.  I was placed on academic probation in college because of my dismal grades for the fall 1984 semester; then got suspended for the fall 1985 term because I still couldn’t get it right.  That prevented me from becoming a full member of a fraternity I so desperately wanted to join.  In April my parents and I had to put our German shepherd, Joshua, to sleep.  That fall I had my first sexual experience, which proved embarrassing and depressing.  In October I fell into a police trap and was arrested for drunk driving.  (My blood alcohol level ultimately proved I wasn’t legally intoxicated.)  By Christmas, I was an emotional and psychological wreck.  I’d come as close to committing suicide as I ever had that year.  But, as New Year’s rolled around, I’d settled down my troubled mind and realized my life could continue.

I realized 1985 was the worst single year of my brief existence and hoped I’d never see another one like it.  For more than three decades that pretty much held true.  For the longest time almost anything related to 1985 made me tremble with anxiety.  Nineteen ninety-five turned out to be almost as bad; instilling a phobia in me about years ending in the number 5.  Ironically, though, 2005 was a pretty good one for me, and last year was okay.

Then came 2016.

People all around me are waiting for this year to die, like a pack of hyenas loitering near a dying zebra.  Aside from a raucous political campaign – with a finale that seems to have set back more than two centuries worth of progress – we’re wondering why this year has taken so many great public figures and left us with clowns like the Kardashians.  I could care less.  This year has also taken my father and my dog and is slowly taking my mother.

Over these last six months, I’ve experienced emotional pain unlike anything I’ve ever felt before.  I’ve never endured this kind of agony.  It’s dropped me into an endless abyss of despair.  Early in November, strange red spots began appearing all over my body.  It brought with it chronic itching sensations.  I wondered if small pox had been reintroduced into society and I was one of its unwitting earliest victims.  The rashes and the itching would come and go, like million-dollar windfalls to an oil company executive.

It all shoved me back to the spring of 1985 and the odd little sores that sprung up on either side of my midsection.  They were painful pustules of fluid that I tried to eliminate with calamine lotion, ice cubes and prayer.  They finally vanished, and only afterwards did someone tell me what they were: shingles.  I had to look up that one in a medical reference.  For us cretins aged 40 and over, WebMD was a fool’s dream.  But I knew that’s what I had, and its cause was just as apparent – personal stress.  My poor academic performance, Joshua’s death, thinking my failure to join that stupid fraternity was a reflection of my failure as a human being – all of it had piled onto me.

In November of 1995 – about a week after my birthday – I woke up early one Saturday morning, stepped into the front room of my apartment and repeatedly banged my fists against the sliding glass door.  I was aware of it, but I felt I was compelled to do it.  As I lay back onto my bed, my hands already aching from pounding on the glass, I asked why I had done something so bizarre at that hour of the morning.  Then, almost as quickly, I answered myself.  I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  I was experiencing serious financial problems at the time and I was having even more problems at work.  My father had just experienced a major health scare.  One of my best friends was sick with HIV and had been hospitalize with a severe case of bronchitis, and I’d just had a heated telephonic argument with another guy I thought was a close friend over…some stupid shit I can’t recall after all these years.  So, after weeks of dealing with that soap-opera-esque drama, my mind cracked.  Stress of any kind wreaks havoc on one’s mind and body.  It’s several steps up from a bad day at the office.  This is why U.S. presidents always look light-years older when they leave office.

So, as I smothered my body with cocoa butter lotion and anti-itch cream, I harkened back to 1985 and thought, ‘Goddamn!  History repeats itself too conveniently.’  The death of another dog and more subconscious trauma.  This time, though, events have been more critical than not being able to join a fucking fraternity or falling into a drunk driving trap.

But something else has changed.  While my body reacted in such a volatile manner, my soul has been able to handle it better.  I’m older and wiser now, and with that, comes the understanding that life is filled with such awful and unpredictable events.  Yes, I’ve fallen into fits of depression.  But I’m not suicidal.  I don’t want to harm myself in any way.  In fact, I want to heal and keep going.  I didn’t kill myself in 1985 or in 1995 or in any other stressful period since then.  I really just want to keep going.

I keep a list of story ideas; a Word document amidst my electronic collection of cerebral curiosities.  When I peruse that list, I realize I may not be able to bring all of those ideas to life.  But, if I didn’t try, why should I even bother with it?  Why bother even with getting up every morning?

Something has kept me alive all these years.  Something has kept me going.  Earlier this month I noticed a cluster of irises had bloomed unexpectedly in the back yard.  My father had planted them a while back.  With Texas weather being so schizophrenic, warmer-than-usual temperatures must have confused the flowers, and they jutted their blossoms upward into the swirling air.  I had to gather a few before temperatures cooled, which they did.  They languished on the kitchen counter for the next couple of weeks, longer than usual.  And I realized their presence is coyly symbolic.  My father was telling me that, despite the heartache of this past year, life continues, and things will get better.

I still miss my father and my dog, but I care for my mother as best I can, even as her memory keeps her thoughts muddled from one day to the next.  And I continue writing because that’s who I am and what I love to do.  I can’t change what happened years ago, but it brought me to where I am now.  I couldn’t alter the events of this past year.  But it’ll all carry me into the following years.

Happy New Year’s 2017 to all of you, my followers, and to all of my fellow bloggers!

Irises that bloomed in our back yard earlier this month.

Irises that bloomed in our back yard earlier this month.

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Now I Understand

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In the mid-1970s, Freddie Prinze was leading an extraordinarily successful life. In December 1973, at the age of 19, he had come to the nation’s forefront after a stint on “The Tonight Show” in December 1973, which led to him landing the first half of the title role in “Chico and the Man,” an NBC television comedy. He appeared opposite Jack Albertson, a stage and film veteran. Despite their age and cultural differences, the two became good friends, with Albertson serving as a mentor to his younger co-star. I remember the series clearly. Prinze’s character was a breakthrough role. For the first time, American television boasted a Hispanic figure who spoke English perfectly.

By January of 1977, Prinze had a rollicking standup comedy career with sold-out gigs wherever he went and a top-selling comedy album; “Chico and the Man” remained a highly-rated show. He even performed at Jimmy Carter’s inaugural ball. He was married with a 10-month-old baby boy, Freddie, Jr.

And, he was miserable.

Things had begun to spiral out of control for Prinze. He’d become addicted to Quaaludes and cocaine and, in November 1976, was arrested for drunk driving. Then, on January 26, 1977, his wife, Kathy, startled him with a restraining order.  Two days later Prinze planted himself at the Beverly Hills Hotel and began making a series of “goodbye” calls to his mother, a few friends and his manager, Marvin Snyder. Snyder rushed to the hotel to try to stop his young client from harming himself. But, it was too late. Prinze put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He survived the initial shot, but the next day, his family authorized officials at ULCA Medical Center to remove Prinze from life support. He was 22.

The news of Prinze’s death – a suicide, no less – shocked and horrified the masses who loved him. How could someone that young with so much talent, success and money, plus a beautiful wife and baby, be so unhappy? I was 13 at the time and couldn’t understand. He was popular, right? He had lots of money, right? Why would he kill himself? It just didn’t make sense.

The recent suicide death of actor / comedian Robin Williams exposes, yet again, a miserable underside that lurks beneath a life of outwardly blissful happiness in the entertainment world. There’s a reason why the symbol of the theatre is comprised of dual masks: the comic Thalia, smiling, and the dramatic Melpomene, frowning. They’re high and low; top and bottom; the moon’s bright side and its dark side. Intertwined and – for the most part – interchangeable. All emblems of life. One can’t exist without the other.

Both Prinze and Williams had a great deal of money and a great deal of fame. It seemed everybody loved them. If someone has those two things – money and fame – then everything else is inconsequential. They should be completely and totally satisfied with their lives. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?

Money may make life easier, but it really doesn’t make it completely satisfying. As cliché as it sounds, money truly does not buy happiness. No amount of money will make you like a job you hate. I love writing, for example, even though I haven’t made much money from it; a few freelance and contract technical writing gigs over the past few years. When I lost my job with an engineering firm in 2010, I was earning more money than I ever had before. Yet, in that last year, I hated the place. For some reason, tension had been building since the end of 2009, and I ultimately felt management was targeting me specifically. It was almost a relief to get laid off.

It’s difficult for people outside of artistic communities to understand. But, comics, actors, singers and other artists are people, too. We’re weird, yes, but we’re human beings first. We have the same emotional fluctuations and experience the same anxieties in life that everyone else does. We’re just a bit more expressive about it. Yet, because professional artists exist in the public realm, their lives fall under greater scrutiny. They’re magnified a thousand times for all to see. And, when someone makes a career out of telling jokes and doing impersonations, people assume they’re always happy. But, it’s difficult for most to imagine the pressure an artist must feel to perform and be “on” all the time. People expect a comedian to make them laugh – all the time. Entertain me, my little clown. I want nothing less from you.

And so, the entertainer does what they’re supposed to do – entertain. That’s why they’re paid – very well, sometimes – and thus, despite whatever agonies they’re facing, they pull the spirit of that entertainer deep from within the depths of their souls and put on a show. The writer, the singer, the dancer – all of them do what they’ve trained themselves to do; what they’ve wanted to do perhaps since childhood.

It appears artists, in particular, are prone to severe mood swings that often lead them to substance abuse and untimely deaths. Actors, writers, painters and the like experience the best and worst that humanity has to offer. That’s why the word “troubled” often accompanies the moniker of artist.

Jackson Pollock was one of the most innovative abstract painters of the 20th century, but he battled alcoholism his entire adult life. Ernest Hemingway was a literary giant, a larger-than-life persona who was the epitome of masculinity and steadfast courage; yet injuries he incurred during his raucous life apparently took a toll on his mental and physical health, and he committed suicide in 1961.

But, it’s not that every artist is troubled; we’re not all mentally unbalanced and destined for an early grave. We merely troubled; we’re not all mentally unbalanced and destined for an early grave. We just observe life through a more acute lens; we balance things out differently. We don’t see the world strictly in terms of black and white. We watch it move in all its colorful glory; the laughter and the pain mixed up together. That’s how and why we create the art that we do. If we didn’t experience the full gamut of human emotions, then we wouldn’t be so creative. We’d be … well, just like everyone else.

Fellow blogger Gus Sanchez touched on this very subject a few weeks before Williams’ death. “On Mood Disorders and the Writing Process” jumps directly into the fire of the artist-mental illness connection. As someone who’s gone through the manic highs and lows of creativity and dry spells where I feel the entire world is out to get me, I fully comprehend the realities of depression and anxiety.

It’s a blessing to be imbued with such creative elements. We can make other people happy, or make them think. It’s a curse in that we see the ugliest sides of the world glaring back at us and challenging us to do something about it. We often take up that challenge. Many times it works out for the best; sometimes, it hurts.

The Melpomene mask doesn’t conform to our vision of life in the limelight. Everyone wants to be around Thalia; we always demand Thalia be there to make us feel good about things. But, Thalia just can’t be a part of our world unless Melpomene is also present. They’re undeniably symbiotic; conjoined twins held together by the same heart. They can’t live separately. Without cold, there can be no hot. Wherever there’s a smile, there must also be a frown.

Towards the end of my tenure at the engineering company, I had a private meeting with my immediate supervisor. I told her that everyone was on edge and just didn’t feel good about things. She shot back, accusing me and the others of “creating all this drama.”

“There’s no drama,” I quietly responded. This wasn’t a soap opera. It was the real thing. I guess she couldn’t understand it the way I did. She was looking at the situation through a narrow, gray tunnel. I saw all of the sign posts, in blazing red and yellow, warning of danger ahead.

When Freddie Prinze passed away, my young mind couldn’t fathom such horror. But, as information about Williams’ emotional problems begin to surface, his tragic death seems only slightly more comprehensible. I keep thinking Freddie Prinze and other artists who died at their own hands reached out from the netherworld, grabbed Williams’ soul as it departed his beleaguered body and said, ‘Come with us. We understand. You’re safe now.’

So, I look at all the happiness and all the tragedy that make up this wonderfully unique thing called human existence, and I understand, too.

 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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I Heard Breathing

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This is based on an actual experience I had some time in the fall of 1995.  Make of it what you will.

I heard breathing – heavy, steady breathing.  My eyelids jumped open, and I caught sight of the ceiling fan.  Where was I?  It took me a moment.  I was in my bedroom.

Breathing – breathing – slow – and steady.  Breathing – breathing.

What was that?  There was an animal in the room with me, beside my bed.  But, I didn’t own a pet. I was alone in my one-bedroom apartment.

I’d been fast asleep.  Then, the breathing woke me up.

I turned to my clock.  It was just after 3:00 in the morning.  Dead time.  When the spirits come to life.

But, I kept thinking – it was an animal.  But, what?  What kind?  What animal had made it into my apartment and curled up beside my bed?  At this time of the morning?  I never left the window or the patio door open.  The front door was always locked, especially at night.  I lived in a nice suburban neighborhood.  It was a quaint little apartment complex.  No one bothered me, and I bothered no one.  It didn’t back up to a stand of forest, or a farm.  Hardly anyone here had a pet.  So, what animal had managed to sneak in here?

No, I thought.  No animal.  Dead time.  A spirit.  Oh, God!

I listened to it for the longest time.  Something was there – lying on the floor.  It was on the left, next to the clothes hamper – and close to the doorway. Should I decide to make a run for it, I’d probably have to jump over it.

That’s if I could move.  And, I couldn’t move.  I was frozen beneath the single sheet – stiff – paralyzed with fear.  My heart started to thump hard against my chest.  My throat undulated, and my hands trembled.  I wanted to move.  But, after glancing at the clock, I couldn’t.  My body had stiffened.

I was in the midst of a nightmare, I told myself.  Yes, that’s what it was.  I was having a really bad dream.  I’d been having a lot of those lately.  What with problems in the family and the stress at work – I had trouble sleeping.  Yes, it was a stupid nightmare.  A nightmare – in slow motion.  But then, why did I look at my clock?  Unless your dream involves Salvador Dalí, how would a clock come into the picture?

It was still breathing.  Whatever it was – it was sleeping – or waiting.  Oh God.  Waiting for what?  I couldn’t move.  It could take me now.  This wasn’t a dream.  Something was there.

And, I got the sense it was something – bad.  Something – evil.  What demonic entity had entered my bedroom at this time of night and camped out on the floor?

I kept listening to that steady breathing – and wondering what it was and why it was there.

Then, it dawned on me.  I’d been so depressed.  My entire life had been turned upside down by crap at work and things in my family.  Everything seemed to be going out of control; occurring without my input, without my permission.  It had plunged me into a state of despair.  I was angry and upset all the time.  The only things that soothed my mind were jogging and jujitsu.  I’d run for miles.  I’d beat the crap out of a punching bag.

But, it didn’t settle my beleaguered mind.

So, I thought…well, it’s not worth it.  This world wasn’t worth the trouble.  Nothing – and no one – is helping me.

So…more than once…I thought…just end it.  I had to stop the agony somehow.  I had to bring an end to it.  Nothing was going right.  It wasn’t worth it.  I could stop it all on my own.  I could bring an end to this miserable shit.  And, no one would care.  No one would miss me.

Breathing – breathing.  Long and steady.  It was still breathing.

And, as I listened to it – whatever it was – I suddenly realized – it wasn’t right.  I couldn’t just end it.  I was educated and smart.  I still wanted to travel.  I had a lot I wanted to get done.

And, I couldn’t do it dead.

More importantly, there were people who really cared for me.  Family – friends.

It’s not right.  I couldn’t just end it now.

My heartbeat slowed, and I began breathing normally.

I realized – I was worth something – to myself – and to so many people.

It’s not right.  I can’t do that to myself.  Or to my family and friends.  I couldn’t leave that legacy for them.  I just couldn’t.

And, whatever it was – on the floor next to me – it had been waiting for me to jump off that cliff.  And, into its jaws.

My left leg twitched slightly.  And then, my right one.  Then, I could shift my pelvis.

And then – the breathing.

It slowed.

And, it stopped.

I turned my head to the doorway.

Something lifted up – from the floor – a lumpish dark form.  It got up – and slinked away.  Through the open bedroom door.

I wasn’t dreaming.

Something had been there.

And, whatever it was – it saved me.

© 2014

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Psycho Crap

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The death last week of legendary comedian and actor Jonathan Winters invoked a plethora of admirable responses.  Many contemporary comic figures, such as Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, spoke fondly of a man who inspired them in their own careers.  But, amidst the accolades came another type of acknowledgement: that Winters suffered from depression and alcoholism.  I never knew that – and I really didn’t care to hear about it.  It’s become inevitable though in recent decades, especially here in the U.S.; that when someone dies, or announces their run for public office, the media tries to learn what bad stuff lurks in their backgrounds.

It seems to be a uniquely American trend; one I still insist began with Watergate.  When the American populace first heard some of the secret tapes Richard Nixon recorded, most were shocked at the level of foul verbiage that spewed from the mouth of the president.  It may be naïve in retrospect, but at the time, I suppose most people assumed someone at that level of power would speak more maturely and professionally.

But, I remember my mother saying how surprised she was to learn, years earlier, that actress Carolyn Jones wasn’t the angelic figure she often personified herself to be.  That’s the thing with people in the entertainment community, though; they create a universe for themselves and expect the public to believe it’s true.  Pretty much the same can be said about politics.  There’s a certain sense of egotism one must possess to succeed in either venture.  Yet, is really necessary to point out the bad things people have done?

Almost as soon as the local ABC news channel announced Winters’ death, they just as quickly pointed out that he’d battled depression and alcohol.  In fact, that took up half of their brief piece on him.  Here was one of the most talented and ingenious comedians the U.S. has ever produced, and the goddamn news has to highlight the fact he was a recovering alcoholic!

I know what it’s like to suffer from depression and alcoholism.  The two are almost symbiotic; conjoined twins of human psychosis.  Growing up shy and an only child – as I’ve mentioned here before – plunged me into severe states of depression while enduring the tough times of childhood and my teen years.  When I discovered alcohol, it only numbed the pain, but it didn’t make it any better.  It never does.

I’m not proud of those struggles – except to say I got through them – but I certainly don’t want to be remembered for it.  However my epitaph reads, I’d hate to think whatever demons lumbered around in my mind take up much of the dialogue.  We Americans love a good success story, but it seems we also love to see people humiliated in public.  We like to see that proverbial dirty laundry flapping in the winds of fame and fortune.  Or, some do.

I don’t know what it is that compels this society to do that to people.  Are we so enamored with our own potential that we have to snuff out our competition at any costs?  Or, are we just that psychology twisted?  Regardless, it’s immature at best; cruel and destructive at worst.

We all want to have people think the very best of us.  So, as I contemplate Jonathan Winters, here’s what comes to my mind: hysterically funny, innovate, creative, impressive; a man with no equal; a damn good comedian; someone who made me laugh every time.

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